In June 1812, Napoleon invades Prussia. Tolstoy pauses the story to meditate on history and its causes. He argues that the typical explanations for history, which attribute war and big events to politics and 'great' men, are insufficient. Instead, he argues that history is caused by infinite decisions and influences, most of which seem unimportant. Therefore, even though people make decisions from free will, those decisions are still employed by a greater destiny.
Napoleon crosses the Niemen river and invades Prussia, losing a number of men in the process.
Meanwhile, Tsar Alexander is in Vilno, Poland. He inefficiently tries to prepare for the war before attending a ball in his honor. Many of the novel’s characters have followed the tsar to Vilno. Boris Drubetskoy has become quite the social climber, and eavesdrops on the tsar in hopes of hearing news that no one else has heard. He overhears that Napoleon has crossed the Niemen and that the tsar is planning to declare war if the French do not withdraw.
The tsar sends Balashov, a general, to demand that Napoleon withdraw his troops from Prussian lands. The French troops that Balashov meets are very disrespectful to him. He eventually meets a French nobleman, now styled as the king of Naples, who regards war as inevitable.
Balashov arrives at Napoleon’s residence. The French continue to treat him rudely. After four days, Napoleon agrees to see him, at the very house in Vilno from which Alexander had sent Balashov off.
Balashov meets with Napoleon and is so intimidated by the emperor that he does a poor job of representing Alexander’s interests. Although both emperors insist that they don’t want a war, they also insist that they other country started the conflict.
Balashov represents Russia so badly that Napoleon begins to consider him an ally. He gives him a letter to Alexander that notes his refusal to withdraw his troops. War begins.
Back in Moscow, Prince Andrei wishes to duel with Anatole Kuragin, but the their military assignments prevent them from meeting. Andrei takes leave to Bald Hills and confronts his father about his bad treatment of Princess Marya. He further warns Prince Nikolai that Mlle Bourienne, with whom the elderly prince continues to flirt to the point of considering marriage, is of bad character. The elder Prince Nikolai doesn’t listen. Princess Marya urges her brother to forgive their father.
Back at military general headquarters, Prince Andrei observes eight factions within the Russian officers, all of which have their own ideas about the best military strategy. Prince Andrei advises the tsar to leave the army for his own safety.
Prince Andrei visits Count Bennigsen in the latter's quarters to discuss strategy with him, the tsar, and a few other generals.
The tsar arrives at Bennigsen's quarters, and the debate over strategy begins. Prince Andrei is struck by the fact that all of the generals are more interested in themselves than in winning the war, except for one named Pfuel. The next day, the tsar offers Andrei a high honor: a position in his own detachment. Andrei rejects it in favor of a job in the army.
Since we last saw him, Nikolai Rostov has been with his hussar regiment. He writes Sonya and reiterates his promise that they will marry when he returns. His regiment retreats from Vilno. Nikolai takes on a young protegé named Ilyin. They go to a tavern together.
At the tavern, all the men flirt with Marya Genrikhovna, a German woman who travels with the regiment alongside her doctor husband. Marya is gorgeous and seems to enjoy the attention, which stops when her jealous husband wakes up and sends the men away.
At two in the morning, the Pavlogradsky regiment gets orders to go to Ostrovna, a small village near which they expect a battle. Nikolai is no longer afraid to fight. The battle begins and Nikolai participates courageously.
Nikolai bravely leads his corps into a detachment of French dragoons. He wounds a French officer, and is horrified at what he’s done when he sees the young man’s face. He cannot bring himself to kill the officer, so the officer is taken prisoner. Although Nikolai is awarded the St. George Cross and is promoted for his efforts, he has an inexplicable feeling of shame.
Natasha is extremely ill from her suicide attempt. The doctors are of little help, but the Rostovs get satisfaction from doing all they can to help her. As Natasha recovers emotionally from the elopement disaster, she begins to recover physically as well.
Natasha no longer enjoys life. The only things that bring her any joy are her brother Pyotr, Pierre Bezukhov’s company, and church.
Natasha goes to church with her family and prays for the people she knows.
Pierre continues to find moral renewal in loving Natasha from afar. The comet, the frightening rumors that the war is going badly, and a Masonic prophecy all convince him that the world is ending, and that he will play an important role in the great events ahead. He avoids joining the military because he believes that he must wait for his destiny to play itself out.
Pierre visits the Rostovs and everyone listens as Sonya reads aloud a patriotic message from the government. Fifteen-year-old Pyotr Rostov distresses his parents by announcing that he wants to join the hussars. Pierre finds it so painful to be around Natasha that he decides not to visit the Rostovs anymore.
The tsar is coming to Moscow. Pyotr Rostov sneaks out to attend the event, hoping to volunteer for the military directly to the tsar. However, the massive crowds crush him. The tsar throws biscuits to the crowd. After catching one, Pyotr is overcome with patriotism. He threatens to run away from home if his parents won’t let him join the military, so Count Rostov looks into getting Pyotr a safe assignment far from the front.
Pierre and Count Rostov attend a state dinner. There, Pierre gets into a heated argument about the role the nobility should play in the war. He believes the nobility should do more than just provide peasant soldiers; they should also advise the tsar. Hardly anyone at the dinner agrees with Pierre.
The tsar arrives and gives an emotional speech about the war effort. All of the nobility, including Pierre, agree to give more soldiers and money than they had previously planned. Count Rostov signs Pyotr up for the military.
This section’s portrayal of Napoleon and Tsar Alexander dovetails with the points Tolstoy makes in Chapter 1 about the historical importance (or lack thereof) of great men. For all the pomp surrounding the two emperors, we very rarely see them making decisions or thinking things over in the level of detail that Tolstoy uses for Pierre or the Rostovs. Instead, the emperors are most often seen from afar. Their importance lies not in the individual decisions they make, but in the deep emotion they inspire in their people. In other words, it is the promise of men and money that fuel the war, not the tsar himself.
Tolstoy seems to be ambivalent about whether the overwhelming patriotism that Tsar Alexander inspires is a good thing. On the one hand, it moves the nobility to transcend their self-interest and be generous with their resources – but in addition to money, these resources also include the lives of their peasants. It rouses an endearing, if childish, passion in young Pyotr Rostov, but this passion could very well lead to his death. In fact, we have seen how a similar passion in Pyotor's brother Nikolai leads to disgust and shame, as has happened before and then is repeated more strongly in this section when the latter is disgusted by nearly killing a man up close.
There is also a motif of people being crushed in the frenzy surrounding the tsar. The crowd tramples Pyotr when he tries to volunteer for military service directly to the tsar; an old woman falls down while trying to catch a biscuit the tsar has thrown; in the hysteria following Pierre’s liberal speech, a nobleman cries out: “Gentlemen, you’re crushing me!” (680) This series of images may be a veiled critique of the indirect harm that blind patriotism can have on the common man.
Forgiveness and selfless love are the dominant forces in this section. Now that the characters have experienced life’s hardships, they are more driven by self-sacrifice than they were at the beginning of the novel. The most obvious example of this is Pierre Bezukhov, who does his best to love Natasha from afar and support her when she is ill after her suicide attempt. However, Princess Marya also urges her brother to forgive their father for his unpleasantness in old age, even though one of the primary complaints against the old man is his cruelty towards her. Even Natasha Rostov, affected by her recent disgrace, prays for her enemies in church (although she has to invent them – a detail that foreshadows how society will forgive Natasha for her indiscretions, since Tolstoy does not count the rumormongers as real enemies).
Between the apocalyptic prophecies, Natasha’s illness, Pyotr’s naïve enthusiasm for the military, and the violent scene in which Napoleon crosses the Niemen, this section is darker than many of the book’s earlier chapters. Tolstoy juxtaposes these events to create an ominous mood that foreshadows the massive bloodshed that will occur once the war gets into full swing. Tolstoy portrays Pierre’s Masonic prophecies with great skepticism, but the interlude in Chapter 1 suggests that he does believe in some level of predestination – the course of history is fixed and individual people are powerless to change or control it. This worldview helps explain the author’s heavy reliance on foreshadowing in this section and throughout the novel.
For any analysis of War and Peace as a whole, Chapter 1 of this section is central. It follows directly on the image of the comet, which, as discussed previously, indicates the way that individuals work in interplay with the most cosmic of events. As such, this chapter echoes the same theme as that of the comet. What follows the history chapter - the way that war disgusts Nikolai even in the midst of his great heroism; the way that the nobility are shaken to support a war that will lead to Moscow's destruction; and the way Pierre rages desperately to be of another world - are all in line with what the book has been about thus far, but in light of the section's first chapter, we are meant to begin reflecting on this idea of fate. Tolstoy does not mean to suggest that the Greek Fates are spinning our wheels, but rather that our world made of disparate spinning parts - people and gods and institutions and armies - are all in constant interplay so that what will come must come because of who and what we are.
Finally, this theme is stressed even further when we consider the dramatic irony that would exist for any Russian reader. No educated person of Tolstoy's day would not have known that Napoleon's invasion of Russia and the horrors that ensued were soon to be documented in the work. So as events build, though they might be dramatic for a reader unaware of history, Tolstoy intended for his reader to notice how events large and small are all conspiring to produce an event that would scar and define Russia for a long time.